The fourth attempt to shutter Queen Elizabeth Annex since 2008 proved to be the final one this week when Vancouver school trustees voted to close the elementary school.
The small French immersion school currently provides education for 71 students from kindergarten to Grade 3. It’s been at the centre of a district debate since January involving the parents of Annex kids and of kids at schools Annex students might end up in, and trustees and district staff.
The Monday evening special board meeting was dedicated to deciding the school’s fate.
Trustee Allan Wong began the meeting by moving that the district close the school.
But while he had faith his “eleventh hour” decision was the right one, Wong did not ask other trustees to vote with him.
“I sincerely state for each trustee to vote based on their own deliberation,” he said.
Wong’s reasons for closure, echoed by most of the six trustees who voted to close the school, included a projected decrease in the school’s student enrolment, an estimated $14.7-million district budget deficit and the desire to use operating funds saved by the closure for the construction of a new elementary school in Olympic Village and for overdue seismic upgrades for over 40 schools.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled the Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, the French-language school district for the province, has the right to school space in the district in 2016. Its decision found the francophone elementary school in the city’s west side has been overcrowded since 2007 and noted the search for a new school site had begun back in 2011.
In 2019 then-education minister Rob Fleming tied provincial funding for a new Olympic Village school to the disposition of Queen Elizabeth Annex to the conseil.
But the district declined to close the school in 2019.
The Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique filed another lawsuit against the district and the province in 2020.
This lawsuit argues the Vancouver School Board decision not to transfer the Annex to the conseil violated francophone students’ Charter rights to an education in their own language.
While current Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has not explicitly tied the Annex’s disposition to funding for the Olympic Village school, an emailed statement from her office to The Tyee in March supported transferring Queen Elizabeth Annex to the conseil.
“Francophone students deserve the same access to public education as their Anglophone peers, and we appreciate the co-operation of the VSB and the CSF on this matter,” the statement read.
“This would ensure Francophone students in the community have a school of their own, and provide the VSB with significant funding to advance their capital priorities.”
A new school for Olympic Village was an NDP election campaign promise in 2020.
Yet trustee Estrellita Gonzalez said at the meeting this week that it has been three years since the district received new capital funding from the ministry. New capital funding from the district is necessary in order to build the school, she said.
Gonzalez also said the ministry had asked the district to create a long-term investment plan for its spending priorities, including the Olympic Village school, a requirement that has not been made by the ministry for any other school district.
Gonzalez cited the recently passed Bill 22, a School Act amendment empowering the province to give school districts’ lands to the Conseil Scolaire Francophone.
Closing the school now, instead of waiting for the government to do it with Bill 22, could give the district leverage in getting new capital funding from the government, she said.
“I feel it’s prudent that before trustees approach that decision, that there be a goal in mind of what the VSB can negotiate from the Ministry of Education for the CSF long-term lease.”
The three trustees who voted against closing the school, Barb Parrott, Jennifer Reddy and Oliver Hanson also cited the government in their voting decisions. Parrott and Reddy repeated many of the concerns expressed in public consultation, including Zoom sessions, and in online surveys where a narrow lead of 51 per cent of respondents favoured closing the Annex. (The Tyee asked to attend these sessions, but the district declined the request, citing the need to prioritize the privacy of attendees.)
A lack of trust in the district and its consultation processes was a consistent theme of the five Zoom sessions, according to Delaney and Associates stakeholder engagement, which was hired by the VSB to facilitate the consultation.
As reasons for her decision, Reddy listed a “difficult consultation process” that was “fraught” and plagued by closed-ended questions; a lack of adequate data on future enrolment projections; and inadequate consultation with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
Hanson, the liaison trustee for the Annex and the proposed schools for displaced Annex students, L’École Jules Quesnel and Queen Elizabeth Elementary, said he voted against closure because he is not running for re-election.
Holding back tears as he described the experience of his son’s school almost closing a few years ago, Hanson said his decision was based solely on what he sees as a trustee’s role.
“Closing QEA… is the wrong decision because it’s not in the best interest of our learners,” he said, adding that the decision could lead to moving Annex students to an overcrowded or seismically unsafe school — L’École Jules Quesnel could become overcrowded with the addition of the Annex students, and Queen Elizabeth is not seismically safe.
“We all forgot why we’re in this position in the first place: the Ministry of Education has failed in its responsibility to CSF learners to provide them with sufficient schools in Vancouver and elsewhere, and has downloaded the problem on our district.”
The Annex will shut its doors at the end of June 2023.